Florida's citrus industry is fighting for its life

girl with Florida oranges
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 calsidyrose

Bacteria are ravaging citrus groves that prevents fruit from ripening.

Bananas aren't the only popular fruit facing a doomsday scenario. The Florida citrus industry is in a steep and scary decline, due to a lethal disease that is decimating the state's biggest crop. The Washington Post reports that a bacterium called huang long bing (HLB) has infected 90 percent of Florida's citrus groves. HLB originates in China, as did citrus, and is believed to have come to Florida in smuggled tree clippings in 2005. The effect has been devastating:

"The pathogen prevents raw green fruit from ripening, a symptom called citrus greening. Even when the fruit does ripen, it sometimes drops to the ground before it can be picked. Under Florida law, citrus that falls from a tree untouched cannot be sold."

It's worsened by the presence of citrus psyllids, tiny insects that spread HLB from leaf to leaf. Climate change will enable the citrus psyllid to move further north out of Florida.

The harvest season typically runs from November till May, but thousands of growers have walked out of the groves because they see no point in continuing. The problem has been a long time coming. As the Post states, "More than 7,000 farmers grew citrus in 2004; since then, nearly 5,000 have dropped out." Packing operations and juice-processing facilities have shrunk to a fraction of their previous numbers, and 34,000 jobs were lost between 2006 and 2016.

The solutions are varied and drastic. Some farmers have been told to uproot all their groves and start over from scratch, but the disease-resistant trees being offered for sale by researchers at the University of Florida are $12 apiece, not feasible for groves of 2,500+ trees; and they would take five years to produce fruit.

Researchers are trying to develop new root stocks to replace the roots that are most susceptible to the disease, and to genetically engineer more resistant orange types, but if these are adopted, they will change the varieties of citrus we've become accustomed to eating after all these years, such as the Valencia, a sweet orange used in most juices.

It's an alarming story, one whose end has yet to be written; it deserves more coverage, as many people are not even aware that citrus is facing a struggle. While researchers race against time to salvage Florida's second-largest industry after tourism, the rest of us would do well to appreciate the delicious fruits sitting in our kitchens at this moment. We're lucky to have them.

Florida's citrus industry is fighting for its life
Bacteria are ravaging citrus groves that prevents fruit from ripening.

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